Warning: This story has disturbing details about the Kamloops residential school. If you are feeling triggered, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
The prime minister is promising “concrete action” after a ground-penetrating radar search confirmed the existence of an unmarked mass grave containing remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
For starters, he could stop fighting First Nations children in court, fully fund similar investigations at other sites and call the situation what it is — a genocide — according to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Singh called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons during an emotional Monday morning press conference.
“Anytime we think about unmarked mass graves, we think about a distant country where a genocide has happened. This is not a distant country,” Singh told reporters. “This is here in Canada. And the genocide was against Indigenous people. And it is a genocide that is ongoing.”
Singh said the Liberals need to do more than express their grief through “symbolic gestures” and kind words.
Ottawa could drop two Federal Court appeals that are scheduled next month, fully implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and fund increased healing for survivors, Singh added.
After years of probing, the TRC concluded in 2015 that residential schools were a central element of “cultural genocide.”
Watch the response from Ottawa here:
In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls dropped the qualifier. It concluded that past and present Canadian policies amount to a “race-based genocide” against Indigenous people.
Politicians and media have waffled over use of the word genocide in the past, but Singh refused to equivocate when asked if he had any trepidation.
“What happened to Indigenous people in this country is genocide. There’s no question about it,” he replied briskly. “There were clearly systems in place designed to kill them.”
The NDP leader was also asked what his message is to communities, families and survivors who are grieving.
Singh stared down at his podium for 50 seconds in silence as the wheels turned in his head, tears filling his eyes as he mulled an adequate reply.
“I’m sorry,” Singh finally said, looking up. “We’re going to fight for justice for you.”
Shortly after, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to the “heartbreaking news.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of the mass grave in a May 27 press release. Kamloops Indian Residential School was the largest such institution in Canada and was located in the band’s territory.
Flags were flown at half mast on Parliament’s Peace Tower and all federal buildings on Sunday at the prime minister’s request.
Trudeau said he was “appalled” at what he described as “shameful policy” that stole Indigenous kids from their home.
“Sadly, this is not an exception or an isolated incident. We’re not going to hide from that. We have to acknowledge the truth: Residential schools were a reality, a tragedy that existed here in our country, and we have to own up to it,” said Trudeau.
“Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged, or not returned at all with no explanations until this week. People are hurting, and we must be there for survivors.”
Trudeau said he would meet with his ministers later Monday afternoon to discuss actions Ottawa could take but didn’t provide any more details.
Federal Green Leader Annamie Paul joined Singh in the call for Ottawa to do more.
She called the confirmation of a mass grave a “terrible discovery that once again highlights the absolute genocidal tragedy of our residential school system in Canada.”
She also said Canada should drop its appeals of two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decisions that order Ottawa to pay victims of the child welfare system and expand eligibility for Jordan’s Principle, which exists to ensure First Nations kids have access to essential social services.
The tribunal concluded in 2016 that Ottawa was purposefully underfunding the First Nations CFS program on reserves and in the Yukon and causing suffering, harm and indignity to thousands of families in the process.
The program, the tribunal concluded, funded apprehension but not prevention, creating what lawsuits call a “perverse incentive” for the state to forcibly and unnecessarily separate kids from their families.
“We need to recognize that the residential school system for Indigenous children has been replaced by the foster care system for Indigenous children,” said Paul. “One system has replaced the other, and the harm and the hurt continues.”
The Bloc Québécois said it supported Singh’s push for an emergency debate.
During question period, Bloc MP Claude DeBellefeuille demanded the Liberals explain what progress they have made in abolishing the Indian Act.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller agreed the Indian Act is an unacceptable law but said it can’t just be abolished unilaterally overnight by Ottawa.
Deputy Conservative leader Candice Bergen added her condolences to those grieving the finding.
She demanded the Liberals answer calls for a probe into the identities of the 215 children.
Miller said Ottawa will be there to support communities with whatever they need but didn’t provide specifics.
The TRC’s call to action No. 76 called on parties engaged in documenting, maintaining, commemorating and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt three strategies to guide their work.
They called for the Indigenous community most impacted lead the work; for survivors and knowledge keepers to be involved; and for Indigenous protocols to be respected before “any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said Ottawa allocated $33.8 million over three years in its 2019 budget to implement calls to action 72 through 76.
There remains $27.1 million that will be spent to support community projects to locate, memorialize and commemorate children who died, said press secretary Ani Dergalstanian.
A Tory spokesperson said the party supported the call for an emergency debate.
However, when Singh brought it up, the speaker said he wasn’t convinced it met the requirements of the House standing orders.
The Liberals then made a motion to have a “take-note” debate.
Take-note debates are not for emergencies but for matters of public policy.
It was passed with unanimous consent and will be held on Tuesday.